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Closing the Gap in Education?

Old Gaps are Closing, New Gaps are Opening

Education, Ethnicity and Gender in New Zealand, 1986–2006

Richard Bedford

University of Waikato

Paul Callister

Victoria University of Wellington

James Newell

Monitoring and Evaluation Research Associates NZ

Context for a debate about ‘gaps’

In a thought-provoking examination of the prospects for ‘closing the gaps’ in socioeconomic outcomes for Indigenous Australians, Altman et al. (2008, 1) have suggested that: ‘The origins of the term “closing the gaps” can probably be traced to the special programs of governments in New Zealand in the 1990s that sought to target Maori and Pacific Islander disadvantaged groups with assistance’. In the early years of the three Labour governments led by Helen Clark between 1999 and 2008, extensive use was made of the closing gaps metaphor and several reports addressed progress towards closing economic and social gaps between Maori and non-Maori populations (eg Te Puni Kokiri 2000).

The language of ‘gap closing’ was criticised by Maori, among others, for several reasons, not the least of which was because it encouraged ‘deficit thinking’ – Maori were always behind the group that was being used to define the standards or levels that everyone was being measured against. The group used to define the standard was either ‘European’ – if several ethnic groups were being compared – or ‘non-Maori’ – everyone who did not identify themselves as Maori. As Altman et al. (2008, 4) have noted with regard to the measurement of socioeconomic gaps in Australia, ‘the social indicators that are drawn from census questions reflect the social norms of the dominant mainstream society. Arguably, a number of social indicators that we use mean different things to Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians’.

In New Zealand, Te Puni Kokiri (the Ministry of Maori Development) has emphasised what it calls a strengths-based approach; one that emphasises potentials of people rather than persistent deficits or gaps between measures of Maori and non-Maori performance and participation in education, the labour market, health and other dimensions of social and economic wellbeing. This approach resonates closely with Chris Sarra’s (2009) ‘stronger smarter philosophy’ as a means by which Indigenous Australians embrace a positive sense of identity and leadership in schools and communities and have high expectations of positive outcomes.

Both Te Puni Kokiri’s strengths-based approach and Sarra’s stronger smarter philosophy emphasise that achievement in education comes from empowerment and confidence in institutional settings that value diversity in identities and languages, differences in perspectives and objectives, and do not always see disparities in outcomes as signs of failure. Maori performance and achievement in education has been assisted by the development of a distinctive set of institutions offering pre-school, primary, secondary and tertiary education. In some of these institutions the curriculum is taught entirely in te reo (the Maori language), while others use bilingual approaches. All have been embedded in tikanga Maori (Maori customary approaches and perspectives). Education of Maori is also being impacted by an innovative program of professional development for teachers – Te Kotahitanga – developed by Russell Bishop and his colleagues at the University of Waikato. Te Kotahitanga, which is discussed briefly later in the chapter, is seeking to improve educational performance and outcomes for Maori in the ‘mainstream’ state-funded school system.

There has been considerable progress over the past 25 to 30 years in Maori educational achievement in New Zealand. This progress is an important component of the Maori renaissance that has accompanied the Waitangi Tribunal process, which acknowledges, and seeks compensation for, injustices relating to land and other resources acquired by European colonists and their attempts to assimilate Maori into a European-dominated economy, society and culture. Maori in the early twenty-first century are in a very different position from the one in the early 1970s when major protests over loss of land, language and livelihoods led to the establishment of the Waitangi Tribunal and the beginnings of a period of sustained Maori resistance, empowerment and renaissance (eg Fleras and Spoonley 1999; Spoonley 2009).

Measuring progress in Maori educational attainment

In New Zealand there remains a concern among policy makers to document progress made in reducing disparities in a range of measures of social and economic participation and achievement. In the case of education, which is compulsory for children aged between five and 15 years, participation rates are frequently used to assess progress towards desired educational outcomes. Investment by the state in education in New Zealand is influenced by performance of different groups in the primary, secondary and tertiary components of the system. There has been a move in recent years to measure performance in a variety of ways, including statistical indicators that are used for comparative purposes internationally (eg participation rates) as well as via group-specific measures that are sensitive to different value systems and priorities (eg Te Kotahitanga).

In this chapter we review changes between 1986 and 2006 in a range of simple measures of participation and attainment in education for four ethnic components in New Zealand’s population – Maori, Pacific, Asian and European/other. Much of the data that are used here were compiled for a project that addresses disparities between males and females in different ethnic, age and relationship groups: the ‘Education capital formation, employment, migration, gender, work-life balance and missing men’ project led by Associate Professor Paul Callister from the Institute of Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington, and funded by the Foundation for Research Science and Technology. The database was compiled by James Newell, a population statistician who directs Monitoring and Evaluation Research Associates (MERA) in Wellington. A detailed report that addresses several important methodological issues relating to the analysis of New Zealand census data over time by ethnic group is available at MERA’s website (Newell 2009a). We do not review these issues at length in this chapter, although some caveats that need to be kept in mind when interpreting the data are provided in different places.

In order to situate the discussion of some simple measures of participation and achievement in education by Maori, evidence from recent surveys of social wellbeing, living standards, employment and education are reviewed in the next section. The discussion then turns to data relating to the four major ethnic populations in 1986 and 2006. Changes over the 20 years are compared for the four ethnic populations aged 15 years and over, and then for males and females in the Maori and non-Maori populations. The chapter concludes with some observations on two key findings from the analysis. The first of these is the ongoing lag among Maori in the statistics on achievement in the basic secondary school qualification – National Certificate of Educational Achievement (NCEA) Level 2. The second is the gender disparities in participation and achievement in education among both Maori and non-Maori – another dimension of what has become known in New Zealand and Australia as the ‘missing men’ or ‘man drought’ problem (eg Salt 2008).

Setting the scene

New Zealand’s population in June 2006 was estimated to be just under 4.2 million – less than the population of Sydney and about half the number living in Johannesburg. When adjusted for under-enumeration in the 2006 census, the number of Maori estimated to be resident in New Zealand in June 2006 was 624,300, just under 15 per cent of the total population. In addition to the New Zealand-resident Maori, there were estimated to be around 150,000 Maori living overseas – about 110,000 in Australia and a further 40,000 in other countries, mainly the United Kingdom, Europe and North America, and an increasing number in countries in Asia (Bedford et al. 2005; Hamer 2007; 2009; Newell 2009a). Unlike indigenous peoples in some other parts of the world – such as the Australian Aborigines, the Canadian First Nations peoples, and some of South Africa’s indigenous groups – Maori are an integral part of a very extensive diaspora of New Zealand’s population (Bedford and Pool 2004).

Maori and non-Maori also have quite similar population distributions within New Zealand, with around 85 per cent of both living in urban areas. There are some differences in distribution within urban areas, but Maori and non-Maori are not separated spatially or in terms of social and economic interaction from the rest of the population to anywhere near the extent that Australian Aboriginal peoples and Canadian First Nations peoples are. Like the Aborigines and First Nations peoples, Maori lost most of their lands, forests and fisheries to European colonial governments and settlers in the nineteenth century, but they were never confined to reservations or denied participation in civil society to the extent many other colonised indigenous peoples were. Maori were exploited, discriminated against and subjected to massive pressure to ‘assimilate’ by abandoning their language, culture and traditions. However, from the early 1970s they have fought back to retain the latter and to regain some of their resources through a major renaissance, which has given birth to some quite distinctive resolutions of grievances with the Crown (Treaty settlements), some innovative education institutions (kohanga reo, kura and wananga) and a new political power base (the Maori Party).

Maori in the early twenty-first century are not a depressed and repressed minority. They comprise the community that provides many of the defining features of New Zealand’s identity internationally: the symbols used on its national airline (the koro) and many of its export products; the war dance (haka) that initiates all its international rugby games; central concepts that underpin its marketing as a ‘safe clean green country’ (whanaungatanga, manakitanga, kaitiakitanga). Maori define and epitomise New Zealand in ways that none of the indigenous peoples of Canada, the United States, Australia and South Africa define and epitomise their countries. Notwithstanding this position of comparative strength, Maori still remain prominent in many of the country’s negative social and economic statistics. It is to the mixed evidence of Maori achievement in some of these statistics that the discussion now turns.

Taking stock: Three recent assessments of social and economic wellbeing

Late in October 2009, Statistics New Zealand released the preliminary results of its first New Zealand General Social Survey, which sought a wide range of information on the attitudes and perceptions of a sample of 8721 of New Zealand’s residents, with particular reference to their living conditions between April 2008 and March 2009 (Statistics New Zealand 2009). The survey found a rather surprising convergence in some of the indicators of socioeconomic wellbeing. For example, over 80 per cent of those interviewed in the major ethnic components of the population were satisfied or very satisfied with their lives (Table 5.1). Higher proportions of Maori than any other ethnic group also felt safe or very safe in their neighbourhoods.

Table 5.1: Indicators of wellbeing, New Zealand Social Statistics Survey, October 2009, in percentages

Source: Statistics New Zealand (2009).

Table 5.1

Despite this general satisfaction with life, there were also indications that Maori were lagging behind other groups, especially the Europeans, on indicators such as the extent to which their incomes met their everyday needs, the extent to which they faced problems with their current housing or in their residential neighbourhoods, and the extent to which they had experienced forms of discrimination during the previous 12 months (Table 5.1). Maori were not always the group with the worst statistics on these measures, but they were generally not as well placed as the European population.

The New Zealand Living Standards Survey, last conducted in 2004, has consistently found Maori disproportionately concentrated in the population with ‘severe or significant hardship’ as measured on a multidimensional living standards scale (Ministry of Social Development 2006). Comparisons of the share of Maori households in the sample population covered by this survey, and their share of households deemed to be experiencing ‘severe or significant hardship’ and to be having ‘good’ living standards (the most favourable living standards category), are shown in Table 5.2.

Table 5.2: Indicators of living standards, 2004, in percentages*

Source: Ministry of Social Development (2006).

Table 5.2

Maori households were almost twice as likely to be in the severe/significant hardship category (29 per cent) than their share of the national population (15 per cent), while European households were under-represented in this category (50 per cent) by quite a large margin compared with their share of all households surveyed (74 per cent). In the case of households with ‘good’ living standards, only eight per cent of Maori households were in this category, while 84 per cent of the European households were deemed to have ‘good’ living standards – much higher than their share of the survey population. The Pacific households were also represented much more prominently in the category with poor living standards outcomes than their share of the survey population merited (Table 5.2).

This socioeconomic disadvantage for Maori in terms of living standards is deeply entrenched; it is not a recent phenomenon. However, it is not a static situation – as indicated earlier, Maori themselves, with support from successive recent governments, have taken major steps to break cycles of intergenerational disadvantage. This can be seen in some recent statistics relating to Maori participation in pre-school, secondary and tertiary education, even though Maori still ‘disappear’ from the mainstream formal education system in larger proportions than non-Maori.

The development of alternative education provision for Maori through institutions that do all or a significant part of their teaching in te reo Maori at the pre-school (kohanga reo), primary and secondary school systems (kura kaupapa Maori) and tertiary (wananga) levels has played an important role in improving education and Maori language outcomes for increasing numbers of Maori. However, the great majority of Maori attend ‘mainstream’ schools, and it is in this predominantly English-speaking education environment that the Te Kotahitanga program is seeking to improve Maori performance and outcomes. Te Kotahitanga is a professional development program that assists teachers to create a learning environment in the classroom where Maori pupils are able to feel connected to their teachers, and to other pupils, through a shared understanding of and vision for what constitutes excellence in educational outcomes. The program was piloted in 2001 and 2002, and is now being used in schools throughout New Zealand. Bishop situates Te Kotahitanga in a wider context of Maori education in his chapter in this book. A critique of the program can be found in Openshaw (2009).

In its annual Social Report, the Ministry of Social Development publishes several indicators of educational performance and achievement for the major ethnic groups. Four of the indicators of progress towards higher levels of social wellbeing that relate to education are summarised in Table 5.3 with reference to 2006. These are national figures, drawn from institutions across the education sector. It can be seen that with regard to participation in early childhood education, 90 per cent of Maori children aged three and four years were registered at a pre-school (including the Maori language medium kohanga reo). This is close to the levels of pre-school participation for Europeans and Asians, and slightly ahead of that for Pacific peoples living in New Zealand.

Table 5.3: Indicators of educational achievement, 2006, in percentages

Source: Ministry of Social Development (2008).

Table 5.3

At the secondary school level, Maori had much lower levels of achievement among school leavers during 2006. Only 37 per cent completed either the first or second levels of the National Certificate for Educational Achievement, compared with 65 per cent of Europeans and 82 per cent of Asians. In this case, Pacific school leavers had a better completion rate than Maori. The Ministry of Social Development cautioned that there are significant variations at the level of the school according to the socioeconomic status of the populations they serve.

Whereas 60 per cent of New Zealand’s school leavers in 2006 left with NCEA Level 2 (what you would expect to get at around age 15 or 16), only 43 per cent of those leaving schools in areas in the lower three deciles of socioeconomic status – the decile 1–3 schools – had NCEA Level 2 in 2006. Of those leaving decile 4–7 level schools, 57 per cent had NCEA Level 2, while those leaving decile 8–10 schools had 74 per cent with this level of educational attainment. It can be seen from Table 5.3 that Maori leaving school in 2006 had a lower proportion with Level 2 NCEA (37 per cent) than the average for all decile 1–3 schools (43 per cent). This is arguably the most entrenched of the disparities between Maori and non-Maori in education – a disparity that has profound implications for subsequent educational participation and achievement. It is this disparity that Russell Bishop’s Te Kotahitanga program is aiming to address.

At the tertiary level, the position was reversed in the 2006 statistics – Maori had the highest level of participation in 2006 (note this is not completion) among the population aged 15 years and over (20 per cent), reflecting a significant drive within the community to gain qualifications. The lowest percentage for actual participation in 2006 was found for the European population (12 per cent) – a population that has a much longer tradition of seeking tertiary education. This can be seen in the final row in Table 5.3, which shows that 39 per cent of the adult European population had already attained a tertiary qualification by 2006, compared with nine per cent of Maori.

Towards convergence in educational achievement?

While differences in educational achievement are frequently highlighted, there are also some important indications of convergence towards aggregate measures of attainment across the major ethnic groups. In illustrating these tendencies, evidence is drawn from analysis by Paul Callister and James Newell (Callister 2009; Callister and Newell 2008; Callister et al. 2008; Newell 2009b; 2009c). The data come from New Zealand’s quinquennial Census of Population and Dwellings between 1986 and 2006. The ethnic groups used in these tables relate to the populations identifying with one or more of the four major ethnic groupings used in the population census.

When assessing aggregate levels of educational attainment, as this can be identified in national census enumerations for different ethnic populations, it is important to keep in mind that these populations have quite different age structures. The Maori and Pacific populations are much younger, with more than 34 per cent aged under 14 years, compared with around 20 per cent for the Asian and European populations (Table 5.4). The percentages in the tables here have not been standardised in order to take account of these age structural differences.

Table 5.4: Changes in measures of educational achievement for the population aged 15 years and over, 1986–2006, in percentages

Source: ‘Missing men’ project, Victoria University of Wellington.


Levels of change

In 1986 almost 70 per cent of the Maori population aged 15 and over had left school without a qualification, by far the largest share of any of the major ethnic populations (Table 5.4). Twenty years later the share with no qualifications of any kind had fallen to just under 40 per cent, and the percentage change between the two censuses (22 per cent) was the largest for any of the major ethnic groups. The gap between Maori and Europeans in terms of proportions aged over 15 with no educational qualifications had narrowed – in 1986 it was 24 per cent but by 2006 if was just under 16 per cent. Some of this change is due to the fact that the Maori population has a more youthful age structure than the European one; it is not just due to improvements in educational performance.

As far as performance at the first four levels of the National Certificates of Educational Achievement (NCEA) is concerned, the gap in proportions of Maori and European whose highest qualification was the equivalent of NCEA Levels 1–4 had also fallen, suggesting, again, a trend towards convergence (Table 5.4). In 1986, 22 per cent of Maori aged 15 years and over had achieved NCEA Levels 1–4, compared with 29 per cent of Europeans – a difference of seven per cent. Twenty years later, the difference between Maori and Europeans had shrunk to two per cent, and Maori had one of the largest percentage changes (10 per cent) compared with just over five per cent for Europeans.

With regard to degree qualifications, the differences between Maori and Europeans aged 15 and over had widened, not shrunk (Table 5.4). In 1986 only six per cent of the European population aged 15 and over had degree qualifications, compared with just over one per cent of Maori – a difference of five per cent. By 2006 the percentage with degree qualifications had increased to just under 16 per cent for Europeans and seven per cent for Maori – a difference of nine per cent. The European component had experienced almost a 10 percentage-point increase in number of degree completions, compared with six percentage points for Maori. Maori had made better progress in terms of increasing the share of the population aged 15 years and over with a degree than the Pacific population in New Zealand, and by 2006 Maori no longer had the smallest percentage of completions (Table 5.4).

Finally, with regard to other post-school qualifications (certificates, diplomas, trade certificates etc), there was actually a smaller number of Europeans with these qualifications in the 2006 census population aged 15 years and over than there had been in 1986 (Table 5.4). Newell and Perry (2006) assign this change to the inclusion of certain types of non-vocational training and ‘other not specified’ post-secondary codings in the 1986 and 1991 census definitions but not in earlier and later census counts. This is also complicated by the impact that international migration has on the mix of people with different qualification and skill sets at the time of the census. Notwithstanding this complexity, there has been a tendency to prioritise degree completions over certificates obtained for completing trades qualifications, for example, especially among the European and Asian populations. For the Maori and Pacific populations, however, numbers gaining these qualifications had increased – by over six percentage points for Maori over the 20 years, followed by a much smaller increase for the Pacific peoples in New Zealand (Table 5.4).

The evidence relating to changes in the shares of people in the different ethnic groups who have reached particular levels of educational achievement suggests that there has been some convergence of Maori with the other clusters of ethnicities. However, it is important to keep in mind that differences in age structure also have an impact on the observed changes. Another way of looking at change over the 20 years 1986–2006, as well as the most recent intercensal period, 2001–2006, is with reference to index numbers for specific ethnic groups. These give a better indication of the comparative rates of change in the numbers reaching different levels of educational achievement.

Rates of change

In Table 5.5, changes in the numbers aged 15 years and over at the different levels of educational achievement in the 20-year and the five-year periods are shown for Maori and non-Maori (a composite population comprising the Pacific, Asian, European and other ethnic groups). The index number for the population attaining each of the qualification levels in 1986 and 2001 is 100. The numbers for 2006 show the comparative index numbers for the populations, working from comparable bases of 100 in 1986 and 2001.

Table 5.5: Changes in numbers of Maori and non-Maori aged 15 years and over attaining qualifications at the specified levels, 1986–2006 and 2001–2006

Source: ‘Missing men’ project, Victoria University of Wellington.


Over the 20-year period, the most dramatic change for Maori was in the numbers taking out degrees. Maori aged 15 and over with degrees increased more than eight times – from 2778 to 23,070 – compared with an increase of 3.4 times for the non-Maori population. In both the school qualification and other post-school qualification categories Maori numbers doubled, while non-Maori numbers increased more slowly (Table 5.5). In all cases the pace of change had been faster among Maori, in part reflecting the small numbers with qualifications, especially degrees, at the time of the 1986 census in a population with a youthful age structure that was growing more rapidly than the non-Maori population throughout the period.

Over the most recent intercensal period the changes have been much more modest, but in all cases Maori numbers have increased more rapidly than those for non-Maori. This is reflected in the higher index numbers for Maori across all of the qualifications shown in Table 5.5. Again, the largest increase was for degree qualifications, followed by post-school qualifications. There was little change in the numbers with no qualifications or with a school qualification.

While evidence from this preliminary analysis of changes in levels of educational achievement is rather mixed, it is clear that there has been some considerable progress among Maori since 1986, especially in tertiary education. Analysis of the secondary-school performance data produced less convincing evidence of significant improvement in attainment of qualifications, but it should be kept in mind that these data pre-date the development of te Kotahitanga. The 2011 Census of Population and Dwellings will be the first to capture one dimension of the impact of this professional development experiment.

On the basis of the evidence presented so far, it can be argued that gaps between Maori and the European ethnic populations are being closed. There is less evidence that this has happened as much for the Pacific migrants and their descendants who have entered New Zealand in large numbers since the 1960s. On several of the indicators used in this analysis, the Pacific population, which includes a large number of people of mixed Pacific-Maori ethnicities, is the most disadvantaged. In common with the initiatives taken by Maori from the 1970s to protect their language and culture from further disintegration, and to win back resources to enable much more investment in education for their children, some Pacific communities are seeking to gain greater recognition of Pacific ways of knowing and learning in the classroom. Maori successes have stimulated other groups to play more active roles in education in their communities.

The gender gap

There is one disparity in New Zealand’s education statistics that is beginning to attract more attention from researchers and policy advisers. This is the gap in achievement between males and females. There is considerable interest in the ‘missing men’ – men who have vanished from the statistics, including the census population, without dying or migrating (Callister et al. 2006; 2007). This is a complex problem from a statistical point of view and this is not the place for a major analysis of the ‘missing men’ problem. It is appropriate, however, to conclude this discussion of gaps with a brief comment on the disparities in educational achievement between males and females in the census statistics that were used in the previous section.

When index numbers are used to show the magnitude of the changes in numbers at different qualification levels for both 1986 and 2006, rates of change for females are almost always faster, with numbers of women obtaining degree qualifications increasing at more than three times the level for men over the 20-year period (Table 5.6). Indeed by 2006 there were more females (239,238) taking out degrees than males (208,542). This compares with a very different situation at the time of the census in 1986, when there were 79,614 males and 42,145 females recording they had degrees.

Table 5.6: Changes in numbers of males and females aged 15 years and over attaining qualifications at the specified levels, 1986–2006 (1986=100)

Source: ‘Missing men’ project, Victoria University of Wellington.


It is evident from Table 5.6 that there were much greater relative increases in degree attainment by females, both Maori and non-Maori, than males. Again this reflects, in part, the very small numbers of Maori women with degrees in 1986 – 1077 compared with 14,150 in 2006. The rate of change between 1986 and 2006, as reflected in an index number for Maori females of 1351 (13.5 times more than the respective number in 1986), compared with 488 (4.9 times) for non-Maori females, gives a clear indication of the magnitude of the change in degree attainment over the 20 years (Table 5.6). By 2006 there were just under 6000 more Maori women with degrees than men – the gender disparity was much greater and growing much faster among Maori than in the non-Maori population.

A concluding comment

Gaps in educational achievement in New Zealand between major ethnic groups persist, especially when the standards for attainment used are those for the majority European population. However, there is evidence in the aggregate statistics that can be derived from quinquennial censuses that these gaps are narrowing, except in the case of those between males and females, where they may be widening in favour of women, especially among Maori.

Persisting disparities between Maori and non-Maori in both participation and attainment in education remain a concern for policy makers in the Ministry of Education, but for many Maori the critical issue is not so much about closing gaps but about the way students are empowered to learn in the mainstream classroom setting. Recognising and tapping the potential for learning among diverse groups of students in the classroom is at the heart of innovative programs, such as te Kotahitanga, that aim to ensure better outcomes from education for all students in New Zealand, and especially Maori students. Monitoring the effects of these programs will be critically important for evaluating changes in educational participation and performance in the next two decades.


The research that underpins this chapter has been funded by the Foundation for Research, Science and Technology (FRST) through the program ‘Education capital formation, employment, migration, gender, work-life balance and missing men’, led by Associate Professor Paul Callister, Institute of Policy Studies, Victoria University of Wellington. We acknowledge with gratitude this support from FRST.


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Closing the Gap in Education?

   by Ilana Snyder and John Nieuwenhuysen